Austria – Snap elections and a possible FPÖ victory: Potential to alter the functioning of Austria’s semi-presidentialism?

The Austrian presidential elections last year was a sign of tremendous change in the country’s party system. Both of the hitherto dominant parties – Social Democrats (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) – failed to have their candidate elected (let alone enter the run-off), while support for the far-right FPÖ and its candidate, deputy speaker Norbert Hofer, soared. Although veteran Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen eventually won the election, the threat of the FPÖ becoming the largest party in the next elections has been looming over Austrian politics ever since. After Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) resigned in the aftermath of the presidential election debacle and was replaced by his co-partisan Christian Kern, relations between coalition partners SPÖ and ÖVP were tense. Three weeks ago, the coalition effectively collapsed with the resignation of vice-Chancellor Mitterlehner (ÖVP) and the announcement of his successor, foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, to call snap elections for October 2017. The outcome is unpredictable as of yet, but will provide a difficult parliamentary arithmetic in any case and may transform the way in which Austria’s semi-presidentialism functions.

To date, presidents have largely practised a “Rollenverzicht” (i.e. relinquishing of an active role in day-to-day politics) and made generally sparing use of their powers, particularly in the appointment and dismissal of Chancellors where they followed the will of parties. Nevertheless, the Austrian president belongs to the most powerful presidents in European democracies (more powerful in fact than the president of France; see also Robert Elgie’s interview here) and can theoretically dismiss governments at will. The possibility that Norbert Hofer, if victorious, would appoint FPÖ party leader Strache as Chancellor was discussed as a distinct possibility. While the FPÖ currently holds 38 of 183 seats (20.8%) in the National Council and is thus only the third-largest party after SPÖ and ÖVP, it now has a realistic chance of becoming the largest party and claiming the office of Chancellor (see figure above).

An electoral victory for the FPÖ would not only put the established parties, but also president Van der Bellen in a difficult position – domestically and internationally. Van der Bellen has not only repeatedly declared that FPÖ leader Strache would be an unsuitable choice for Chancellor but also that he would refuse to appoint a FPÖ-led government even won the most seats in the next election [1]. Furthermore, when the FPÖ participated in Austria’s federal government (albeit as junior partner in a coalition led by the ÖVP) the last time (1999 to 2002), other EU member states reacted with diplomatic “sanctions” due to the FPÖ’s openly xenophobic and revisionist positions (many of which remain part of the party – albeit less openly – to this day).

SPÖ and ÖVP have been very pragmatic in preparing for a potential coalition with the FPÖ. Starting with the failure to openly back Van der Bellen’s candidacy against Hofer in the run-off of the presidential election, neither party has excluded a coalition with the FPÖ outright. Thus, president Van der Bellen will likely assume a crucial role after the elections. Interestingly, the president has so far refused to comment on the snap elections – except for asking parties to remain civil and stating that he would expect them to formulate clear positions regarding the EU, education, labour market and human rights. Given the Austrian Chancellor once appointed does not require a vote of confidence or investiture, Van der Bellen would have the option to appoint a minority government. In that case, he may effectively become a ‘third coalition partner’ and much more strongly and openly involved in day-to-day politics that any Austrian president before. Yet even Van der Bellen chose to appoint a government with participation of the FPÖ, he could likely still refuse to nominate its candidate for Chancellor over that of a (junior) coalition partner [1]. Irrespective of the scope of the FPÖ’s participation in government, Van der Bellen would face both domestic and international pressure to provide a balance to the FPÖ.

Come October Van der Bellen will most likely not be able to rely voters to produce an ‘uncomplicated’ parliamentary arithmetic as could his predecessors. Rather the election with force him – or provide an opportunity for him (depending on one’s perspective) – to assume a more active role in Austrian politics. During his election campaign, Van der Bellen had already hinted at a slightly more activist understanding of his role. Assuming a strong FPÖ result (or victory), the question is now whether Van der Bellen will want to use the vast powers of the presidency and to what extent this will lead to a transformation of Austria’s semi-presidentialism.

_______________________________________________________________________
[1] Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves made a similar statement with regard to Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar in 2010 but remained inconsequential as the party failed to win the elections.
[2] An international precedent for this would be Polish president Lech Walesa’s nomination of PSL leader Waldemar Pawlak as prime minister of a SLD-PSL coalition in 1993, even though the SLD had won more seats.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 31 May 2017.

Austria – Complaint against narrow runoff result might lead to partial do-over of election

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 16 June 2016

After Alexander Van der Bellen won the runoff with a razor-thin margin, calls for a recount and even accusations of electoral fraud from Norbert Hofer’s (FPÖ) supporters were expected. The FPÖ has now lodged a formal complaint with the Austrian Constitutional Court which could trigger a partial rerun of the second round of presidential elections. It is clear that there were some irregularities in the counting of votes and bodies on various levels failed to follow correct protocol. Unfortunately, Austria’s Ministry of Interior and the respective state electoral bodies have also not done the best job in preventing the emergence of further doubts. Given that the FPÖ has yet to make public its list of suspected violations – which is said to exceed the number of previously publicised cases – it is difficult to establish what the outcome of their complaint will be. In any case, the FPÖ has already succeeded in gnawing off some of the new president’s legitimacy before he has even taken office.

The known cases of electoral violations mainly concern the counting of postal votes, idiosyncratic decisions or errors by local officials, and turnout exceeding 100%. Some of the state-level agencies started counting postal votes (which were eventually decisive for the election) too early and some others at least opened the post vote envelopes already on Sunday instead of Monday morning. Although this was against protocol, there is not indication that there was any manipulation or interference with the ballots. In another case in the town of Helfenberg, there were three ballot papers too many in the box after the end of the day even though all voters had been registered twice before casting their vote. Eventually, the local electoral commission decided to take out three invalid votes to make numbers match – while certainly unusual, this seems like a fair decision in relation to its effect on the outcome. The problem here is that the mayor ripped up the three supernumerary ballot papers – a clear violation of federal law. There was also one case where a women was unable to cast her vote due to an error on the electoral register (where she was listed as a postal voter).

More troubling is the report of the municipality Miesenbach in Lower Austria where apparently a handful of 14 and 15 year-olds where allowed to vote – the general voting age is 16. Overall, fifteen teenagers below the voting age were listed as eligible to vote of which five eventually cast a ballot. The reason seems to be that the local electoral commission mixed up the electoral register for the presidential election with the so-called ‘Wählerevidenz’, a constantly updated list based on the local resident registration database. 380 valid ballots were cast in Miesenback, 258 for Hofer and 122 for Van der Bellen, so that it didn’t have a significant impact. Nevertheless, this is a blunder that cannot be easily justified.

For a while the official election website showed 146.9% turnout in Waidhofen/Ybbs

For a while the official election website showed 146.9% turnout in Waidhofen/Ybbs

Last but not least, an embarrassing error fuelled accusations of electoral fraud on the day after the election. The official election website on the pages of the Ministry of Interior showed an impossibly high turnout of 146.9% for the district Waidhofen in the city of Ybbs. A screenshot was widely shared across social media, particularly by supporters of Norbert Hofer. The Ministry later traced the error back to the state electoral commission. While the local district had submitted correct data, the state commission made an error during data entry and transmitted the incorrect data to the Ministry. Human error happens in every election but raises questions over the suitability of the IT systems used by Austrian authorities, e.g. why is there not automated checking of improbable values in the systems? In some other districts, turnout even exceeded 200% as a great number of people made use of proxy voters. In addition, the number of distributed ballot papers was slightly lower than votes received in a few more electoral districts. Nevertheless, while this may seem suspicious to international observers, this is simply due to the postal vote system in place in Austria (as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany). Postal voters receive their ballot paper by post and can either send it back by mail or go to any relevant polling station to cast their vote. The latter happens particularly often when people are on holiday and still want to cast their vote in person (in Germany this is limited to SMD districts).

These known cases alone should not be sufficient to trigger a partial re-run of the presidential runoff in the affected districts. However, the FPÖ claims that violations were recorded in 94 of 117 postal voting districts. Given that it was the postal votes that turned the result around and Van der Bellen eventually won with only 31,000 votes (0.6%) difference, such a claim – if it proves true – would definitely require a do-over of some sort. The Federal Returning Officer, Robert Stein, has however expressed doubts that the whole second round would be repeated. In any case, the FPÖ might have found a way to once again mobilise the anti-establishment vote that Norbert Hofer received. From the point of view of a rational observer, a ‘conspiracy’ against the FPÖ by the state (including public TV stations – one of the FPÖ’s recurrent targets during the election campaign) may be out of the question. Nevertheless, it is likely to resonate with the FPÖ’s core electorate which sees the stigmatisation of the far-right party and categorical exclusion from the federal government as an injustice and plot orchestrated by SPÖ and ÖVP. Even if the complaint is entirely unsuccessful, it casts a shadow over Van der Bellen’s election and will give additional ammunition to the FPÖ in the run-up to and after the next parliamentary elections.